Our Family Talks About Sex

Nan, a cousin of mine who works in human services, was visiting recently. As I cooked dinner she told me the results of a recent study on teenage contraceptive use. Apparently, since most high school sex education is now "abstinence based", it is difficult for sexually active teens to get good information on how to have sex safely. They are simply told not to have sex. So when they do have sex, they are often unprepared for the decisions and communication necessary to have sex responsibly. In the middle of our conversation, my eight year old daughter, Molly, came in looking for food. Nan stopped in mid-sentence. I asked her to continue.

She nodded uncomfortably in Molly's direction.

"What are you guys talking about?" Molly wanted to know.

"Sex," I said to Molly.

"Oh," she said, relieved that we weren't talking about her. "Are there any pretzels?"

I again urged Nan to continue, explaining that Molly often hears us talk about sex, and there is no reason to hide any information from her. It was a struggle for Nan to get past her reflexive fear of taking about sex with a child present. Only by asking direct questions could I convince her to continue.

Molly munched her pretzels while I asked Nan, "How feasible is it to think teenagers could talk honestly about their sexual history or HIV status?" and

"Are there many teenagers who are enjoying sex without actually having intercourse?" We talked about how the "heat of the moment" can impair the judgment of even well informed adults.

Afterwards Nan asked how Molly got to be so comfortable overhearing such a conversation. I explained that her mom, Sue, and I have talked openly since she was a baby. We wanted to avoid the classic American pattern that we both suffered from as children.

My parents never talked about sex. They completely avoided the subject, except for a lone "birds and bees" talk. This single moment of their availability failed miserably because I had no questions that I dared ask these people who were so obviously uncomfortable with the subject. Instead, I got my information from peers, most of whom were woefully lacking in maturity. My lack of education created numerous problems for me as a young man, but I will spare you the details.

So Sue and I started out early, reading to Molly from preschool books about where babies come from. Later we liked "A Kid's First Book About Sex" by Joani Blank and Marcia Quackenbush. Molly was usually only interested in a little information at a time. A lot of it sounds pretty abstract to a youngster. We were careful to notice when her attention for the subject drifted.

There are some subjects about which Sue and I feel too vulnerable to discuss with Molly present. When we talk generally about sex, however, we try to include her. Often, when we watch romatic comedies on video we use the pause button so we can explain any sexual innuendoes that may have been confusing to Molly. In addition, every year Sue takes Molly to the gay pride march. This provides Molly a good opportunity for learning about the many different ways people can have sex.

When Molly has her own friends over, however, we observe the normal cultural discretion. A sudden exposure to open talk about sex can be very confusing and embarrassing for a child. We also make sure Molly is aware of the cultural expectations she can expect outside of our home.

Our goal is to provide Molly with all the information she needs to make responsible choices and be able to communicate comfortably abut sex before she becomes sexually active. We consider this a safer and less frustrating route than the cultural norm of leaving teens fumbling in the dark.

We would never dream of letting our child grow up without learning how to read. Likewise, we would feel negligent as parents if our own embarrassment stopped us from preparing Molly for the pleasures and dangers of sex.

© 2008 Tim Hartnett

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Parents are the bones on which children sharpen their teeth. - Peter Ustinov

Tim Hartnett, MFT is father to Molly at their home in Santa Cruz, CA. Tim also works part time as a writer, psychotherapist and men's group leader. If you have any feedback, or would like to receive the monthly column, "Daddyman Speaks" by Tim Hartnett regularly via email, (free and confidential) send your name and email address to E-Mail Tim Hartnett, 911 Center St. Suite "C", Santa Cruz, CA 95060, 831.464.2922 voice & fax.

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